Exploring Morgan County's Agriculture
The citizen explores the economic effects agriculture has in the community
Story by Kathryn Purcell
Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Agriculture plays in significant role in the employment, economy, even the lifestyle of Morgan County; in fact, the two are often counted as synonymous with each other. On any given day, at any given time, at any point in Morgan County, the fact that agriculture is present is immediately apparent -- from peacefully grazing horses to lines of chicken houses to rows and rows of cotton.
And even to the smell that comes from passing a cow pasture right after it has rained.
It's all agriculture, and it's the lifeblood of Morgan County.
Cow Patty, er, Party
This week marks National Agriculture Week, with National Agriculture Day falling on Thursday, March 20, also the first day of spring.
"It's a day to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture," according to the National Ag Day Web site, www.agday.org. "Every year, producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies and countless others across America join together to recognize the contributions of agriculture."
And the reason for the celebration becomes clear with the realization of all that agriculture provides. On a national level, according to the National Ag Day Web site, agriculture provides everything from food to employment to wildlife habitats:
• "Today's farmer feeds about 144 people in the United States and abroad. In 1960 that number was 46."
• "Forty-one percent of U.S. total land area is farmland."
• "U.S. farmers account for 46 percent of the world's soybean production, 41 percent of the world's corn production, 20.5 percent of the world's cotton production and 13 percent of the world's wheat production."
• "Almost 99 percent of U.S. farms are operated by individuals or family corporations."
• "Nearly 22 million people are employed in farm or farm-related jobs."
• "Farmers and ranchers provide food and habitat for 75 percent of the nation's wildlife."
It seems fairly apparent that agriculture in the United States has come a long way. Improvements in production have allowed for the creation of meat low in fat and cholesterol, which means leaner meat and better value for the customer; biotechnology that allows fruits and vegetables to stay fresh longer and become resistant, by nature, to insects; and plant breeding that further keeps crops resistant to insects as well as able to minimize the affect of a drought.
New uses for agricultural products are also coming into their own, especially with the advent of fuel alternatives. Corn and grain sorghum are being used for ethanol, while soybeans are being used to make biodiesel. In fact, soybeans are also being used in the major markets dependent upon petroleum products, including plastics, coatings and ink, adhesives, lubricants and solvents.
Technological advances have also affected the farm industry in a variety of ways. Mechanization, through the use of machines like tractors and combines, has helped to cut down on the time needed to complete farm tasks. More recently, precision farming using things like satellite maps and computer models permits farmers to use fewer production inputs and yield higher quality, higher quantity crops, according to the National Ag Day Web site. Technology typically increases efficiency, and it generally helps to keep the cost of food down for consumers.
Agriculture is more than food, it's the basis for clothing and other products. Agriculture counts for more than most people realize.
"Agriculture provides almost everything we eat, use and wear on a daily basis," according to the National Ag Day Web site. "But too few people truly understand this contribution...Each American farmer feeds more than 144 people ... a dramatic increase from 25 people in the 1960s. Quite simply, American agriculture is doing more - and doing it better. As the world population soars, there is an even greater demand for the food and fiber produced in the United States."
A Locally Grown Economy
Morgan County is agriculture. Why? Agriculture accounts for $130,658,520.17 of the county's economy, according to the 2007 Farm Gate Report for Morgan County.
"Agriculture in Morgan County is still very viable," Morgan County Extension Coordinator Bobby Smith said. "It provides over $130 million of revenue to the area. Farms are a major economic stimulus for the county."
The number of farms in Morgan County has fluctuated since 1964, when the county had 536 farms. That number fell to 343 farms in 1974; 355 in 1982; 366 in 1992; and 525 in 2002, the point in time when the last Census of Agriculture was taken. Acreage of farmland has decreased -- from 93,061 acres in 1992 to 92,248 in 1997 to 89,191 in 2002 -- while acres of harvested cropland has grown -- from 17,844 acres in 1992 to 18,445 in 1997 to 17,934 in 2002.
As of 2006, the average size of a Morgan County farm was 170 acres, with 37.7 percent of farms being between 50 and 179 acres. Ten- to 49-acre farms counted for 33 percent; 180- to 499-acre farms for 18.3 percent; 500- to 999-acre farms for 4.6 percent; one- to nine-acre farms for 3.8 percent; and 1,000-plus acre farms for 2.7 percent.
In 2007, according to the Farm Gate Report, put out each year by The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the majority of agricultural revenue came from Poultry and Eggs, a total of almost $65 million.
Most of that money -- more than $49 million -- was made in the 'Broiler - Integrator' category, or by the processors that give chickens to growers to be raised before they are given back to the processor (or integrator) to be processed for consumption. The production of eggs for consumption followed with a total value of more than $7 million; the 'Broiler - Grower' category, or the ones that raise the chickens before they're sent back to the Integrator, followed with $5.9 million; and the production of eggs to be hatched came to a total value of $2.3 million. These numbers are up compared to 2006's Farm Gate Value in 'Poultry/Egg' of more than $50 million, according to The 2008 Georgia County Guide.
Livestock came in second to poultry products with a total value of $46.5 million. The majority of that income coming from 'Dairy - Central GA Counties' -- $23.35 million -- followed by $12 million for 'Horses - Boarding, training, breeding,' $7 million for 'Beef Cows' and $2.85 million for 'Quail.' Other categories, including 'Horses - Raised,' 'Pork - Farrow to finish,' 'Beef Stockers,' 'Goats' and 'Honeybees - Honey Production' came to a total of less than $1 million each. Livestock value in 2007 is up by more than $10 million from $36.2 million in 2006.
"Historically this has been a large cattle area," Smith said. "We're in the 'Top 10' (of the 159 counties in Georgia) in beef cattle...We're third in the state with dairy cattle."
Further, in regards to dairy farmers, 2007 was a year to go down in the history books.
"Because of higher milk prices, it was a record year for dairy farmers in Morgan County," Smith said. "They made $23 million last year when they normally make between $16 and $17 million. But, they had to pay more for their inputs; the cost of hay and grain was higher."
Ornamental Horticulture in Morgan County totaled almost $12 million in 2007. 'Field Nursery,' with a total of 640 acres in the county, made $7 million; 'Greenhouse,' with a total of 320,000 square feet, made $4.56 million; and 'Turfgrass,' with a total of 100 acres, made close to $324,000. The 2007 total was down slightly compared to 2006's total of $12.4 million.
Row and Forage Crops came to a total of $3.2 million last year, compared to $3.4 million in 2006. 'Hay - Total Harvested,' with 15,000 acres, brought in $1.687 million; 'Silage,' with 700 acres, brought in more than $478,000; 'Cotton,' with 900 acres, brought in more than $442,000; 'Straw - (Wheat, Rye),' with 1200 acres, brought in $252,000; 'Wheat - (Winter),' with 1200 acres, brought in more than $232,000; 'Other - Alfalfa,' 'Corn,' 'Barley' and 'Oats - Total Harvested' brought in less than $100,000 each.
"Morgan County has less than 3,000 acres of row crops, primarily because we don't have the irrigation for it," Smith said. "We don't have water resources like the Floridian Aquifer."
Last year's drought had the greatest effect on the crops, turning out to be a domino effect of the rest of the agriculture industry, both here in Morgan County and abroad.
"Last year was a low year because of the drought," Smith said. "Closer to $3 million is what we should've done as far as hay production. With cotton, we normally get 750 to 1000 pounds per acre; we got 450 (pounds) per acre last year...With wheat, it's normally 80 bushels per acre, but last year we got 45 bushels per acre because of the drought and freeze over Easter...Overall, livestock was affected because the hay and pasture wasn't growing well, so farmers had to buy from elsewhere...We probably lost 10 to 15 percent of beef cattle in Morgan County because people liquidated what they had because of hay prices."
Forestry and Related Products brought in $3.15 million to the county, with one acre of timber accounting for $2.47 million and 180 acres of 'Christmas Trees' accounting for $675,000. In 2006, Forestry and Related Products contributed $3.95 million, less than last year's total value.
Additionally, 'Hunting Leases - Deer,' with 70,000 acres, brought in $840,000.
Fruits and Nuts had a total value of $161,800, compared to 2006's $351,000. 'Pecans,' which totaled 230 acres, brought in $115,000 while 'Peaches - Commercial,' which totaled 12 acres, brought in more than $46,000.
Finally, Agri-tourism, a developing sector of Morgan County's agricultural economy, brought in $70,000 in 2007.
As far as the future for agriculture in Morgan County, Smith predicts an increase in horses will continue, as will an increase in agri-tourism.
"There was an increase in horses; in 2000, there were 1,000, now there's 3,000," Smith said. "People are buying more five, ten and 15 acre tracts. That's one area we're growing and I see us continue to grow...The bright spot is agri-tourism, with us being 45 minutes to an hour from Atlanta. With I-20 coming through the county, it's appropriate for agri-tourism. I think there's enough people to do something like that, given our proximity to Atlanta."
However, he expects the current poultry and row crop situation to stay as it is while the cattle aspect of the agriculture industry in Morgan County might begin to fade out.
"There won't be a push to increase poultry," Smith said. "I see row crops staying like they are because of the water situation...I think we will have migration of dairy and beef cattle out of the county...Instead of dairies getting bigger, they may stay the same and try to add agri-tourism. That also may be easier for young people to get involved in."
Despite what the future holds, plans are being made to maintain the character of Morgan County.
To Morgan County Senior Planner Allison Moon, maintaining that character begins with drawing a distinction between "rural" and "agricultural," and then taking measures to strengthen both aspects.
"Rural is a sense of place, whereas agriculture is an industry," Moon said, in an e-mail correspondence. "Both are often linked together, but both demand very different kinds of attention and action. I think that the recognition of this fact is the baseline for making good policy decisions to guide both areas."
When it comes to speaking to the "rural" heritage of Morgan County, Moon has three ideas in the works -- an extension of the Resource Preservation Advisory Board's Oral History Project, an 'Art in Public Places' initiative and an agricultural-themed festival.
Working with various tourist attractions in the county, like the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, Moon is hoping to use the information gleaned from the Oral History Project to put together a program, through the use of voice recordings and digital and video imagery, to be viewed on a kiosk-like display. The program would feature historic resources of Morgan County.
"It ties into the tourism Madison already has," Moon said. "Tourists could see unincorporated Morgan County without leaving Madison."
The idea behind the 'Art in Public Places' initiative involves Morgan County hosting two juried art shows a year, both at the Morgan County Courthouse, featuring local and regional artists who, naturally, draw this environment and who draw inspiration from this environment.
Moon is also hoping that a show like this would include, aside from a 'Best in Show,' a Purchase Award, where a group from Morgan County could purchase the art and put it on permanent display.
"It's a way of saying, very publicly, 'This is what rural is all about,'" Moon said.
The idea for the agriculture-themed festival is still in very initial stages at this point.
"A springtime festival showcasing things like ornamental horticulture, the hunting lifestyle, the lake lifestyle, the equestrian lifestyle, local produce," Moon said. "The idea's very rough at this time."
The point of all of these projects is to showcase the rural lifestyle of Morgan County, the lifestyle that seems to go along with agriculture.
On the agricultural side, Moon is working to reconfigure some of the Agricultural Zoning Codes, as well as hosting Agricultural Land Use discussion groups.
Moon is hoping to revise the zoning codes through use of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) to include more aspects of agriculture, and to bring the codes up to date.
"It brings in things like ornamental horticulture, aquaculture, even things like beekeeping," Moon said. "We want to send the message that we're open to all kinds of agriculture while making sure we're meeting industry standards."
The Agricultural Land Use discussion groups began this month and will continue every first and third Thursday each month through May from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Planning and Development Conference Room in Madison.
"The first step is to listen to the folks that have an active interest in our rural land, and tell us what obstacles they are facing right now," Moon said. "Agriculture is an industry, and those in that industry will have a much better idea of the practical realities of keeping that industry viable."
After the discussion groups conclude, Moon plans on presenting the recommendations for a next step gleaned from these groups to the Board of Commissioners.
"This may include making some changes to zoning ordinances and development regulations; re-evaluating some parts of the Future Land Use Map; or putting together some work groups to further the discussion in some key areas, such as agri-tourism potential," Moon said.
Currently, the Madison-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce has an Agri-tourism Committee, a group of around 20 members that meets monthly with the purpose of furthering that aspect of agriculture in the county.
"We work in strengthening farms that already have tourism components," Chamber of Commerce President Marguerite Copelan said. "We're working on some events that will feature agriculture and farms; we've got one scheduled for September 2008 and we're working on one for April of 2009. We've brought some speakers in -- Scott Cagle of Cagle's Dairy came and gave an hour presentation as well as met with Wes Holt of the Sunflower Festival, and Hundred Acre Farm. We had two local agricultural businesses that were exhibitors at the Taste of Madison -- the Johnstons had milk and Hunkerdowns had their vegetables and baked goods. We'll continue with the Farm City Tour. We also do 'Farm Family of the Year.'"
The invitation to join is open to any Morgan Countian interested in agri-tourism, according to Copelan. For more information, call the Chamber of Commerce at 706.342.4454.
A more than $130 million industry here, it's easy to see that agriculture is Morgan County's business. The reminders of that fact are everywhere -- from rows of cotton to Agricultural Zoning Codes to the Farm City Tour.
Even the smell of cow pasture after it rains.